I dug out my first novel the other day. The one I started in 2005, when I’d just landed an editorial job I loved and had free time to write in the evenings. I worked for 2 years on that women’s fiction novel. As the equivalent of the photocopied practice worksheets we filled out in elementary school, that’s exactly what it was–practice. I’ve worked on several projects since then as I practiced and worked hard at my craft, but I picked it up last month and read the first MS I ever wrote. Calling it a MS is a bit generous. Reading it again, I realized it was basically an 80,000-word character study.
Absolutely. Nothing. Happened.
My main character wandered around the book, giving her thoughts on everything from her neighbors to gingerbread houses to orange-flavored muffins. She was aimless. She had no goal, no arc, nothing to propel her from the beginning to the end. So no wonder the book was pretty darn boring. But it wasn’t my main character’s fault. It was mine. I realized now that although the inside of her head was a restless storm, externally nothing was happening. Although sometimes things were happening, she wasn’t making them happen. She wasn’t making bold choices, or causing any bowls to tip or people to squirm. She had a lot to say and a lot to think about, but I didn’t give her a chance to act on any of it. My story was stories within stories within stories, and every chapter had a little piece of backstory or vignette that was complete irrelevant to the very weak plot.
A few years later, I read a pretty awesome book–PLOT VERSUS CHARACTER by Jeff Gerke. I realized that most people have an instinct for concentrating on either plot or character, creating the potential for imbalance between the two essentials. The two must be integrated to really make the book shine. It’s hard to care about characters when they’re not actually doing anything. And likewise, it’s hard to care about what characters are doing if we don’t actually know them. That’s when I realized I was that in the game of Plot versus Character, I was on Team Character. Team Plot was still in his corner, shaking his head at me and wondering what the heck I was thinking.
The book coached me to develop outlines–a task I had previously scoffed at. But I realized I didn’t need to plan out every sentence. If I had a ladder in place to climb to the finale of my story, then I could easily reach where I needed to go. And then my imagination could really shine. I knew what had to happen, and I could be creative as to how I was going to get there. It almost made it easier to set subgoals when writing scenes in future projects. Before I had children, I would spend practically all day at Panera or other coffee shop, writing aimlessly. Now with more limited time, I have the opportunity to say “I’m not going to bed until I finish the scene where she has a fight with her boyfriend and hurls a stale strawberry scone at his neck meat.” (Okay, not actually a scene–but wouldn’t THAT be fun to write?)
If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it. And if you’ve already mastered the delicate balance of plot and character, I salute you!
For the rest of you, what is your instinct–Team Plot or Team Character?